TRUST_shutterstock_338745272When it comes to trust and digital media, it’s an understatement to suggest that it cuts both ways. It’s more accurate to state that it slices and dices as many ways as a kitchen appliance from an infomercial.

On one hand, it appears to be easier than ever to assess trustworthiness across the digital landscape. We can vet product recommendations from Amazon, pull factoids from Wikipedia, and even gage credibility based on search engine rankings.

But on the other hand, what we see on digital media already reflects some prior manipulation or steering of products, or information. Or we may be seeing products and services that can’t even be sold. For example last year, Google banned 14,000 advertisers for hawking counterfeit goods, while banning another 10,000 websites for pushing too-good-to-be-true schemes on the public. But even perfectly legit online messaging can create skepticism and the feeling of being duped.

The Way I See It

  • Friends play a big role in building and breaking trust on the Internet. According to a Social Media Link study, more than 70% of consumers report that they trust their friends’ recommendations on social media. Recommendations on Facebook and Pinterest, and those attached to personal stories, proved the most effective in building trust.
  • Consumers aren’t the only ones who get burned by virtual matchstick men. Some companies have also been conned. For example, click fraud, the practice of illegally manipulating pay-per-click advertising to drive up costs, was up 22% in 2014, according to Solve Media. And you can guess who has those cost passed onto them.
  • We all share responsibility for maintaining trust in our complicated digital ecosystem. If you’re someone who’s constantly consulting product reviews, but never contributing – even when you see a product red flag worth writing about – the system will fail.

The Way the Industry Sees It



I sat down with Linda Ong, CEO at TruthCo., to chat about the always evolving relationship between trust and digital media.


Ultimately, does digital media, compared to traditional media, do more to help or harm our ability to trust brands?

Digital media doesn’t inherently create or break trust. But what it can do is provide a plethora of information sources that allow consumers to determine the context in which brands are operating. Much of the concern about “greenwashing” (where a brand’s corporate policies don’t align with their eco-friendly message) came about in an era when consumers could go online to research or monitor a company’s activities, which was arduous or confidential pre-Internet. Today, it’s just due diligence.

What could the industry do better to help brands build and keep trust with consumers on digital media?

Digital media allows for a wealth of information about a company to be shared, disseminated and discussed. Brands that signal transparency – open access to their inner workings – demonstrate a consumer-first perspective that builds trust and loyalty with consumers. Go onto the clothing site and you’ll see them touting “Radical Transparency” about the factories where their products are made, what they cost to manufacture and sell, and their culture of challenging the status quo. By being true about their intentions, their motivations and their processes, they build relationships with consumers who share their values.

Talk about the impact of incidents where consumers’ trust is very publically broken; for example, a large ecommerce site with lax security is hacked, exposing customers’ personal information. Does that have long-lasting effects on shopping and browsing behavior? Or do we forgive and forget quickly and easily?

Ever hear this phrase: “the cover-up is worse than the crime?” Consumers understand that mistakes happen and companies, like people, often fall short. What’s key in regaining trust is how the situation is handled. When brands deny accountability and responsibility, or make non-apology apologies, it can lead to an irreparable loss of trust. But, when a company acknowledges its role in the error by taking swift and often costly action, consumers are more willing to give them a second chance. It will be interesting to see if VW’s brand can recover from its scandal. From what I’ve seen, the corporate response to betrayed consumers has not been inspiring.

When you started in the industry, was trust in advertising the same as today, better, or worse?

There’s definitely been a paradigm shift in advertising since the mid-80s when I was at McCann-Erickson. Back then, a brand could spend its way into people’s hearts and minds, and trust in the message was pretty much never questioned. But people (especially Millennials and younger) have been so bombarded by media and messaging that traditional advertising is often viewed as full of hype and false promises. What they are looking for today is brands that are willing to invest time and effort – not necessarily money – in building real relationships with consumers. Ever since the economic collapse, society prefers brands and ideas with meaning over rampant consumerism and acquisition.Today, the advertising that stands out no longer tells consumers how to live (fresh-smelling breath, whiter whites, etc.) but teaches them how to live and think about the world. It’s more purposeful, and takes a stand for something that matters (see the AirBnB spot about “Humankind”). By promoting values over products, brands can appeal to like-minded consumers who can become their fans – and maybe their evangelists.

What’s the one cultural insight that will impact digital advertising the most in the next five years?

Younger consumers don’t think of the world in siloes, but in ecosystems. Ideas are connected to other ideas and nothing exists in a vacuum anymore. You have to see the world the way they do, if you want to be relevant and connect with them on a deeper level. For example, they typically don’t think about devices the way previous generations do. Bigger isn’t always better; in fact, many prefer to watch full-length shows and movies on their smartphones, because it’s easier. Content is increasingly becoming a highly intimate medium that people hold up close and in their hands. But they’re not isolated – they know they can participate in a discussion or text their friends in an instant!

What’s the most interesting object in your office?

My Shar-Peis dogs, Mac and Moo. They’re highly entertaining!

**Photo credit: Aubrey Mayer**